Observational Bias

Observational Bias is the clinical term used by scientists to describe one of the difficulties of determining the truth. Everyone has biases, everyone has preferences of how they’d like the world to be, or how they think the world is, and this gets in the way of them seeing how things really are. These biases not only make doing science more difficult, it also makes people’s personal lives more troublesome.

It is these biases that lead to the creation of stereotypes and prejudices towards people and ideas. Shortly after childhood a person begins developing ideas about the world, trying to give names and definitions to the things they have experienced. Young people are also subjected to a lot of input from adults too, that affects the way in which they look at the world and everything that is in it. And these early ideas, and lessons from teachers and parents and church etc, (because they are our first thoughts on the subject) are most embedded into our minds, stay with us the longest, and are hardest to break away from.

When we are children, our parents and others try to teach us right from wrong, and how to behave properly. One of the things they did was to tell us that if we do a bad thing, then something bad will happen to us. They illicit fear as a way of controlling us. They said things like, “if you’re bad, then Santa Claus won’t bring you any presents.” We also learn about “sin” at church at this age too, and about Karma. In our minds we take this to mean that bad things happen to bad people. Add to this people’s natural tendency to follow patterns and we soon start believing that, whenever something bad happens to a person, it’s because they are a bad person. Of course that is not true. Bad things happen to good people just as much as to bad people.

We grow up believing these, and other such things, and they affect how we see the world, and other people. It is how we develop our biases.

Now, consider homeless people. They are the most despised and feared and are also the most misunderstood group of people in our country.

When we look at homeless people, either on our tv sets, or computers, or when driving by them in our cars, we look at them in puzzlement. We don’t really understand them, what they are doing, why they even exist. And because we don’t have any immediate information to draw from, our minds start attributing other non-related ideas to the homeless.

In the homelessness industry, observational bias has a huge negative impact on homeless people. It affects how they are perceived and how they are treated.

Most people who work with the homeless do so from a religious, and mostly Christian background. In many homeless shelters it is a requirement for employment that the people working there have a strong background in Christianity/bible study, etc. This causes the people working with the homeless to see all homeless people from a certain point of view. And this point of view prevents them from seeing the homeless for who they truly are. When people view homelessness as only the result of “sin,” then they can see no other potential causes for it. They will actually deny any other causes for homelessness. This affects not only their idea of a cause, but also what they believe to be the cure of homelessness. Most people working at christian rescue missions believe, and teach, that the only way out of homelessness is for a homeless person to convert to Christianity, to be “reborn” in the “Fundamentalist” sense. Because they are so biased towards their Christian faith, using everything they can find to justify their faith, and attempting to prove their beliefs to be valid, they will deny any other means by which a person can escape homelessness. I have known many people who have escaped homelessness, and very few of them ever converted to Christianity in the process.

I have also known people who have worked in homeless shelters for 20, 30 years or more, and because of their various biases, they still have no clue about the realities of homelessness, what causes it, what cures it, and why it makes people so miserable.

To really help homeless people, to help them overcome their many and serious problems, you have to rid yourself of your biases. Not until you can see homeless people for who they truly are, you’ll never be of any real help to them.

Although everyone has an observational bias, that does not mean that it cannot be overcome. But it does require a person to first admit that they are biased. And then they have to take clear and direct steps to remove it from themselves. This means they must learn to be more honest with themselves, and about themselves than ever before. It often means admitting some ugly truths about one’s self. And that process can sometimes be painful. But the results will be worth it. You’ll see the truth of things like never before.


About Kevin Barbieux

I have been diagnosed as being chronically homeless. I write about my experiences and opinions of being homeless

One comment

  1. That's an interesting reflection, Kevin. An interdisciplinary approach may be helpful to better interventions, not just the christian mission of saving a soul.

    Very good.



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